Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Peanuts, Utilitarianism, and the Gopsel

A few weeks ago we at Redeemer faced a concern with our new building (we face a new, or a bunch of concerns, issues, problems each week-but still thankful to have a building!): fellowship time snacks had peanuts. We have several kids who have severe peanut allergies, so it took our session no time to make Redeemer a peanut-free zone from here on out. Pretty much a no-brainer as there really wasn't anything to talk about.

But the ethos behind the decision is something worth another look.

A few hundred years ago a philosophy developed in England called Utilitarianism. Attributed in large part by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, it's not too much more than just using common sense: do what provides the most good for the greatest number of people. It is also called "the greatest happiness principle." That sounds like a good idea at first. Get the most bang for your buck.

But the problem is that common sense is very often antithetical to the gospel. Utilitarianism says, "We 200 people can enjoy the peanut snacks and you 2 kids can stay away." Those are good odds and lead to lots of happy people stuffing their faces with delectable peanut filled snacks. By keeping the peanuts, we'd have more happy people. Potentially. But that's not applying the gospel.

Jesus talks about leaving the 99 for the 1 sheep who is lost (Matthew 18). Jesus talks about taking care of "the least of these," not the "most of these (Matthew 25)." The strong in the faith (probably in the majority) need to keep in mind the weak in the faith (probably in the minority-I Cor 8). Those with families (clearly in the majority) were to invite foreigners and those without family (clearly in the minority) to certain feasts (Deut 16). The Christian ethic is just not a utilitarian ethic.

Now with this case of peanuts, it's pretty simple. We don't want to physically hurt kids. Or anyone for that matter! But what about cases where it is not a life and death matter? I'm talking about legitimate needs, not preferences by the way. Do you function according to a utilitarian ethic or a gospel centered ethic always looking to the needs of the few instead of the happiness of the most?

Another example was shared to me by my closest friend some years ago. The group wanted to go to a certain beach while on a camping trip. One member of the group couldn't make it to the desired area because of a disability. Some grumbled that, "Everyone else would enjoy this beach better." My friend held fast to his decision of NO. They went to a different beach that wouldn't single out the disabled lad. The majority would serve the minority. That's a gospel ethic as opposed to the utilitarian ethic.

There will be other instances where you will as a parent or leader have to make decisions in areas not as cut and dry as peanut allergies. Most Christians tend to be more utilitarian than gospel-centered without realizing it. But it shows. Believe the gospel, apply it, and know that God is honored when the least of these are loved.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A response to Rachel Evan's "15 Reasons why I left the church" Part III

This is my final post on Rachel Evan's "15 Reasons why I left the church."  
  11. I left the church because I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up.

This is where Rachel and I definitely disagree. There are evangelical denominations which do have woman pastors. If that is truly your conviction as a woman, then I suppose its probably wise to seek such an evangelical congregation. However, more than few congregations with a female pastorate or who support the female pastorate have one major thing in common: they don't hold fast to the gospel. If your conviction is to connect to an "female friendly" evangelical church, and no such church in your area exists, I think Jesus wants you to stay put. The "freedom" of a woman in a pulpit cannot become greater than your need to place yourself week-in and week-out under the preaching of God's word. Even it is from a fallible man. Like all of us. Don't let this "freedom" become an idol. Paul called himself "free" even though he was in chains, and he did not make Onesimus' freedom THE issue in his letter to Philemon. Neither can the "freedom of woman to preach" become the issue in your church or any other church.
12. I left the church because I wanted to help people in my community without feeling pressure to convert them to Christianity. 

Christians are to love people in both word and deed (I John 3:16-18; Matt 25:31-40). We can serve people and not tell them about Jesus. That sounds un-spiritual. But think about it for a second. We visited the nursing home with the youth group and demonstrated God's love. We had a brief opportunity to share the gospel and took advantage of it. But it wasn't a waste of our time because we didn't evangelize. Neither was it a waste of time to do Angel Tree for Xmas time (and not put a gospel track in it the gift). There are ways to love your community without words and so display the gospel. 
It's also good to give of our time and resources to serve our community and expect nothing in return. We don't give SO THAT poor people become Christians. We give because Christ emptied himself and became poor so that we would become rich. The recipients should not feel that if they don't become Christians the help will stop. 
However, the ultimate need of that person and community is JESUS. And so as we help, we pray that God opens doors for not only conversation but conversions. We can't lose this distinction as we do mercy and show love to our community. As Paul pleads with Herod Agrippa, "I pray that all would become what I am except for these chains (Acts 26).
 13. I left the church because I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school. 

This one I get, but would feel more comfortable qualifying it. Sunday School or Christian Ed has its main intent (at least in our church) the growing in knowledge of God and His Word that the content of the gospel would cause the Heart to warm. You can't lose this or else you stop making disciples and start creating social workers with no lasting motivation other than self-righteousness.

But the result of the learning the content of God's Word and the warming of the Heart is that the students would desire to serve with their Hands. We have several opportunities for our students to use their Hands (collecting pop tops for Ronald McDonald house, supporting a child in S. Africa).

Honestly the Methodist churches have much to teach us how to best love our communities. I would imagine she didn't grow up in a Methodist congregation (they have women pastors and do a better job at addressing poverty-though some have lost any gospel distinction). Still, many churches are getting better at this. There is much discussion on whether or not it is the church's (as institution) or church's (as believers living as salt and light) job to do this. But whether it's your church leadership gathering individuals and providing the initiative, or rather individual members providing the impetus to love your community, you need to love your community. It needs your love. In practice, churches and leaders on either sides of the discussion don't look all that different. Find a way to love and bless your community, and don't be afraid to fail. Learn from other churches, and if people will listen, stay and teach.

14. I left the church because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience. 

Doubts are part of faith. Faith is messy. I have doubts, and dark nights where I question everything from God's goodness, presence, even existence. Fortunately His Spirit won't let me go too far, a testimony to Psalm 139. Doubts can be evidence of spiritual attack, apathy in tending toward care of your own soul, or even overconfidence of reason or empiricism. But for some, doubts can last longer than others. Even seasons. Still, they are a normal part of growing in faith, so no one should freak out WHEN he has them or WHEN others have them. We can learn from this for sure.
15. I left the church because one day, they put signs out in the church lawn that said “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman: Vote Yes on Prop 1,” and I knew the moment I saw them that I never wanted to come back.  

I'm against gay marriage. I know Christians who aren't against it because they say you can't legislate morality. This doesn't really hold much water to me because everything is probably in essence moral (killing, stealing, even speeding, etc...). I think. Regardless, we will agree to disagree. But the church is not a political entity. Unfortunately some churches make use of these signs, as well as host candidates to speak in their churches. I don't think this is what a church should do. In reality, such a sign isn't going to change any opinions anyway or win them to your side.

Christians are political and have a right to be political, but the church is a-political. It's a place where in Christ there is neither slave nor free, rich nor poor, black nor white, Republican or Democrat (Gal 3:28). You leave your politics at the door. The church aims-or rather should aim-to produce disciples who think, act, and vote their political convictions through the lens of God's Word with the aim of loving their neighbors. I've been privy to healthy churches who may have someone inform the uninformed (like myself) of the candidates and issues before them on a particular ballot. But those folks have not said, "This is how you should vote on this issue." That's unacceptable.

Unfortunately politics probably isn't as black/white as I'd like it to be either. Our denomination is clearly against abortion. Some positions, like slavery, are like that. But signs telling people how to vote often preclude the opportunity for the gospel to change peoples hearts: seeing the awfulness of things like abortion. Only the gospel can change people's views on marriage. A sign ultimately accomplishes nothing and makes the church lose some of its cultural distinction. The gospel and applying the gospel by loving others does actually make much more a difference.  Its 10 times more effective than a sign. Ultimately a sign is just a sign of impatience.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A response to Rachel Evans "15 Reasons Why I left the church" Part II

This is a continuation on Rachel Evans' blogpost "15 Reasons Why I left the Church."

While I don't think there is any reason to abandon the church altogether, local churches have much to learn from her reasons for leaving. I'm thankful for her honesty and specificity. There is much to learn from her.

Here are Reasons 6-10, and my takes on them.

6. I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt. 

Isn't that a sad thing? The church can sometimes be the worst place to doubt, but it really shouldn't. In fact it should be the opposite. Doubt in community, don't doubt alone. Doubt your doubts, but doubt your doubts with others. Never alone. Doubts don't look so scary in community. And if we're all honest with one another, we have varying degrees of doubt. Little known Jude 21 even reminds us, "And have mercy on those who doubt..."  We probably need to do a better job of not freaking out when people say, "I don't know if I believe _______ or believe at all." Christians will people outside the church not freaked out about that. So let's relax. God isn't too busy to deal with all of our doubts. He's not scared of them and we shouldn't be either.
7. I left the church because I didn’t want to be anyone’s “project.” 

Some folks are sensitive to being projects. I was exposed to this in college, when some lass found out that others were "targeting" her. She wrote about it in the campus newspaper. I'm not sure if she was/is a believer or not. I had no problem with people intentionally discipling or evangelizing me. But I know both unbelievers as well as believers can be sensitive toward this.

I think this is all in mentality. We have to be intentional in evangelizing, discipling, and mentoring. Whether it's someone else saying, "Go and disciple so and so" or me deciding "I need to disciple so and so," there's always going to some intentionality. I don't know how you follow the Great Commission without intentionality. You can't make disciples without making a disciple out of this person or that person.

However to me (and I don't know what "project" means to her-maybe I'll ask her!) it's often in the intent. When it comes to outreach, the goal is to really develop friendships that are gospel centered (moving towards the gospel). However, if that person never becomes a Christian, I have still gained a friend.

I have a feeling that becoming someone's project perhaps means the expectation that the person becomes like you or becomes like X with this and that quality.

But we all need discipleship in some sort of community. Many people are content hiding on Sundays. That can't be the case.

8. I left the church because it was often assumed that everyone in the congregation voted for Republicans.

You don't have to vote Republican to be a Christians. You don't have to vote Democrat either. Some denominations or congregations have de facto candidates. We have to vote our conscience. I'm in a primarily Republican congregation. I haven't asked everyone, but I've listened to them talk. They're Republican. There's an assumption that I always think like they do. I don't always. But that's OK. That's just part of living in community. Church members however should make sure that there is no church "party line." And in conversation, it's probably wise to makes sure you know AND respect the politics of another before assuming them. That can be a bit unloving, and reinforce "you must vote this way" mentality even if you don't explicitly say it. In the end, both sides have to bear with one another in love. If you're a Democrat or Republican and feel alone, please don't leave. Then you close the door for a more diverse congregation in the future.
9. I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

It's OK to be troubled by violence. We should. If the violence in the OT doesn't make us do a double-take, we may be de-sensitized. But there are good resources and answers to questions like these. We should not be afraid to ever answer with "God's ways are higher than our ways." But I would probably put our answers in this order: 1.) I don't know, but here may be some good resources on _____ 2.) I personally don't know why, and it's hard..... 3.) God's Ways are Higher than our ways.

 10. I left the church because of my own selfishness and pride.

I love this one. Honest. Some people are "driven" from the church. Many are not. Many just leave because of these two reasons. The preacher didn't do _____. The music was not contemporary or too contemporary....Most of the time its just these two things: selfishness and pride. A desire had become elevated to the level of a "need," and it wasn't met. As a result, it OBVIOUSLY made the person become angry. That's what happens when desires are elevated to the level of needs. 

This is a gal who recognizes that she plays a part. I can work with that. Most churches can work with that. If more folks would recognize how much pride and selfishness they bring to the local church the SECOND they step in the door, we'd see fewer people leaving. And we'd see fewer "reasons" for them to leave. Remember the Seinfeld break-up line, "It's not you it's me." Before you break-up with the church, remember this line, and that may stop your break-up.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Response to 15 Reasons Why I left the Church

Some blogging chick name Rachel Evans that a friend of mine follows on Twitter (and I subscribed to his list) put out something rather provocative. And sad. And perhaps something those who haven't left the church really need to hear. Her blog post is called "15 Reasons I left the church." It's worth the read as its insightful, honest, and accurate. Here it is and here are her reasons:

1. I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers...but they only wanted me to plan baby showers. 
2. I left the church because when we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex. 
3. I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities. 
4. I left the church because sometimes it felt like a cult, or a country club, and I wasn’t sure which was worse. 
5. I left the church because I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith. 
6. I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt. 
7. I left the church because I didn’t want to be anyone’s “project.” 
8. I left the church because it was often assumed that everyone in the congregation voted for Republicans.
9. I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
10. I left the church because of my own selfishness and pride. 
11. I left the church because I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up. 
12. I left the church because I wanted to help people in my community without feeling pressure to convert them to Christianity. 
13. I left the church because I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school. 
14. I left the church because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience. 
15. I left the church because one day, they put signs out in the church lawn that said “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman: Vote Yes on Prop 1,” and I knew the moment I saw them that I never wanted to come back.  

I first want to say how NOT to respond to these issues when they come up with your friends, your kids, co-workers or neighbors. Don't respond to someone's frustrations at church with the law: "it says you should go to church regularly (which I think it does in Hebrews 10). Don't respond with anger. Don't respond by saying how dumb the reasons are. 

Most of these reasons are good reasons to WANT to leave the church. None of them qualify as biblical reasons to JUSTIFY leaving the local church. But she has some great points, so let's see what we can learn from her. When people grow up in the church but don't abandon the faith professed in the church (the latter happens as much as the former I presume), it is often motivated by a lack of love they sense in the church. So instead of pointing fingers, let's repent of ways in which we may have repelled people from the church by our intentional or unintentional sins. By the way, she came out with a following article for why she came back to church-though I'm not totally sure what that coming back looks like in practice. 

I'll just break these reasons up into a mini series with hopefully not too many posts. Probably 3. Worked for Tolkien and a few others....

1. I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers...but they only wanted me to plan baby showers. 

This chick may be better at bible studies. We need more women teaching the bible in the church. I know folks who are better at teaching bible studies who haven't been utilized or affirmed in their gifts. Church leaders do drop the ball. That makes me sad. Yet I know of one gal who hasn't been utilized properly with her teaching gifts, but has taken the opportunity to do more private one-on-one discipleship (people have sought her out-that's what happens sometimes when you're gifted; though it doesn't have to be the case, as I still have to seek people out for this!). Jesus had a discipleship/small/cd group (whatever you call them) of 12. But he also had 3. If you as an individual aren't given the opportunity to lead a bible study, then meet one-on-one with another believer and train him/her to do the same. There are a zillion people in my church alone who could benefit from this! One-to-One bible reading is a great resource for how to read the bible with another Christian.

Sometimes people refuse training or oversight and that's why the opportunity isn't there. Sometimes its just not having time. Sometimes we aren't as good as we think we are and so people don't come. Sometimes we are good enough, but for whatever reason people haven't showed up to bible studies we tried to start. Don't leave the church. Disciple one or two or three people. Nothing is cooler or more effective in building and multiplying the church.

2. I left the church because when we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex.

 Great point. Don't ignore the sin of suburbia. These sins are much more subtle. I "need" a bigger house, more expensive car, more space. That's greed. Let's talk about greed and selfishness as often as we talk about sex as sins that ensnare.

3. I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities. 

The church has to be a place to raise questions and to not be afraid of what we hear. Parents, pastors, teachers have to listen. For our primary learning place (Sunday School), we try to let it be a place for questions. In youth group, we are spending a semester answering THEIR questions. The church can't be scared of questions. It also can't be scared to say, "I don't know." As James reminds us, let us be slow to speak and quick to listen. Listen to questions. Wouldn't we rather have folks ask the church questions instead of their non-Christian friends who WILL listen non-judgmentally?

4. I left the church because sometimes it felt like a cult, or a country club, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.

Would love some more info on what makes it feel like a country club. Probably cliquish. Fair indictment. The only way to change that is to talk to others who don't look like you. Get talking now. Too me a cult has specific rules (explained or understood). For instance, you might have freedom to school your children the way you feel led, but if you don't do it the "church's way," then you get snide remarks, a need to give good explanation for why you're not doing it the "church's way" (as though that's THE way unless you can argue for another), or a stack of books on why you need to do it the "church's way." I've been a target of that, and it does feel cult-ish. Very. Believe the gospel. Really believe the gospel gives you a freedom to follow YOUR convictions. Don't force convictions and don't let others force convictions on you. But when they do, please don't leave or the cultists will continue.
5. I left the church because I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith. 

Whether or not someone can become ordained in a denomination and hold this view is up that denomination. I don't believe in Darwinistic evolution, and believe our common ancestor is a LITERAL Adam. I think there are plenty of holes in evolution. But many Christians do believe in some sort (not totally because they believe God played some part) of evolution. I have former professors who do. It's probably a slippery slope, and you should in the context of a good relationship be able to disagree and explain why you do. I just don't think its accurate to tell someone that any form of evolution is completely incompatible with faith; and that they need to leave the church or give the impression that they should. It's probably wise to be careful when you say you can't be a Christian and hold to some sort of belief in an evolutionary process (or any other ______.) I just don't see how the bible gives us that 100% confidence to make such a bold claim. I might be wrong, but when you make such a claim you should have 100% confidence. And I don't. If someone still holds to I Cor 15, which Paul puts forth as the message of the gospel, I can't say with confidence that their science makes null and void their profession (even if they are wrong in their science-which I believe!).

Hope this is helpful in our quest to examine our own churches so that we can do what we can to be responsible and pray God's Sovereign grace brings back those we may have unknowingly pushed away. Let's hold more tightly to the gospel and let that be the reason people don't like the church.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Who me, a slave? We just may be a slave to sports

Slavery is now regularly in the news and it should be because it is prevalent in many parts of the world. But in contrast, slavery to sin is present in all parts of the world and often gets very little attention. Even in the church. When Jesus mentioned to the Jews of his day that they were in fact slaves, they pretty much commented the way a third grader would if you told him he was stupid or ugly or fat: no, you're the one that is a slave, and have a demon to boot! Read it. It's kind of comical (John 8:31-47)

Seriously, the Jews claimed that the they were free and slaves to no one. Yet Jesus reminded them that anyone who sins is a slave to sin until he/she is ransomed from that slavery and made alive (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13). 

Christians often make the same mistake of thinking "who me?" and that we can't be enslaved. Well,  probably a better way to understand it is that Christians choose slavery over freedom more often than we think. While we are free and don't HAVE to sin, Paul still tells Christians in his letter to the Galatians 5:1 "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

To not go back to a yoke of slavery involves an intentional, conscious, everyday choice. It involves asking the questions do I have to do this activity, "religious" or "un-religious" in order to live, have worth, find meaning? Is this activity, behavior, or belief consistent with God's design or mission for me or my family's life?  

These questions deal with the real heart issue and avoid falling into legalism, a judgmental spirit, or saying THIS IS WHAT ALL CHRISTIANS MUST DO in regards to _______.
For instance, let me pick on our kids athletics for a bit (I'm about to enter that world of organized sports for first time as my almost 4 yr old starts soccer in a week) since that is a huge suburban idol? As I drive to Sunday youth group and notice little kids practicing T-Ball, I wonder, what should my response as a Christian parent be when my kid is that age? I can remember the days of the "Atheist softball league" (as I called it) that we would drive by on the way to church as a kid. Now, Sunday sports are more mainstream in our churches. It wouldn't surprise me to see Christians playing in the "Atheist softball league" anymore. Why not? It's offered then, and fits into our schedules?

Let's get back to the slavery question. If your kid has a travel soccer, baseball, basketball league that regularly stops you for a season at a time from coming to worship, what should you do? In the past, folks planning sports events that prohibit church attendance may have thought, "Well, we need to do this Sunday afternoon b/c we would lose the church going population." But now-and I'm not arguing for a return to "the good old days"-they don't need to fear losing church folks. 

We just cave. We go regardless now. If there is opportunity for our kid to get better, we go. After all, we want them in the NBA, or at least to get a college scholarship. Or maybe just to share the glory of a stud athlete in high school. 

I'd love to be at church, but we have this sporting event.

Is this not suburban slavery?

I fear most of us don't even pause and evaluate. Of course we go. We want our kid to get better or have fun, and he/she would be disappointed if we didn't. But if we HAVE to do something, let's just call it what it is: slavery. If I have to watch sports, fish, or read before doing something consistent with my calling as a gospel-driven parent, spouse, Christian, am I not choosing slavery once again? If we say we can stop these good activities that prevent us from better activities anytime, but simply don't, are we that much different than the drug addict that says he/she can quit any time?

If our saying no to certain activities, behaviors, or beliefs would mean a loss of meaning, purpose, reason for living, then we've once again chosen slavery.

There comes a time to just say NO to good things so that we can pursue better things. There comes a time to say NO, because we have become enslaved again. There comes a time to say NO, because Jesus offers something greater than putting your hopes on your kid becoming the next great soccer player.

We forfeit that joy because we are always saying yes to our idols.

I want my kid to turn pro. I want him to get a scholarship. But I'm entering the season of my life where I will seriously need to make sure that I'm not enslaved to that. I would much rather him walk with Jesus and love His church when he leaves my house. Most Christians would say that is more important, but their unrecognized slavery simply affirms that is not the case. By grace and in community with other broken folks, I will continue to need Jesus and His church to help me recognize my own tendency to slavery. Particularly because I love sports so much.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The role of good works and obedience

In an area rife with legalism and fundamentalism, the idea of "good works" often is quite bad. It reminds me a bit of the Catholicism in the 16th century juxtaposed with the early Protestant Reformation. You can read about one of my experiences with it in this part of West Virginia here. To talk of "good works," or the need for them is often met with hostility. Should this be the case? What role do good works play in the lives of believers? Are they necessary? An after-thought?

To many in this area-because of fundamentalism-"good works" or obedience are simply an after-thought. I do fear that we Christians sometimes respond re-actively more than biblically, and so the idea of "good works" can be minimized. After all, God really just cares about one's ability accurately profess justification by grace alone through faith alone. Just articulate it clearly and you're good to go. A Christian is someone who asserts to and articulates this fact, right? I'm all for articulation. But I can coach a monkey, well maybe not a monkey, (a parrot?), but most any person to articulate justification by faith. Sure they'd falter if I you were to really probe. But for the most part, they'd pass. And it's not because I'm that good.

Is that all that God wants for Christians? Most everyone would say no. But most of us are scared to say much more than that.

Are "good works necessary?" Well no and yes. No they are not necessary to save you. But that's kind of a weird question, because they can't save no matter how good you think those works are. So dumb question, but I raised it. A person is only saved by Christ alone through faith alone. Faith alone saves. But like the old adage, faith that saves is never alone.

Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us we are saved by faith in Christ, and because of that we are God's workmanship created to do "good works" that he as prepared in advance for us. Good works are necessary in the sense that they are a necessary consequence of God regenerating someone. They are produced by God when he saves us in Christ through faith. Here's a snippet from the Westminster Seminary blog:

After arguing that sinners are justified by faith alone, and not by works (Romans 3:21-28), the apostle can make the point that those who are justified through faith have also died to sin. Christians no longer desire to live under sin’s dominion because they have been buried with Christ and subsequently raised to newness of life. Instead of destroying the desire to do good works, the doctrine of justification by faith alone establishes the basis for good works. Those who are justified (having died to sin), will walk in newness of life and begin the process of sanctification. The newness of life and our sanctification is characterized by the doing of good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10), and the presence of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). As Paul puts it elsewhere, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

I also found this article quite helpful in how to think through good works. We do need to encourage each other to do good works, not contenting ourselves with good doctrinal articulation. I like fine tuning doctrinal articulation. I just ordered a book Concise Theology to go through with folks in order to help them know and articulate sound doctrine. But articulation is not the goal of doctrine or theology. The goal, or even the definition of theology according to a former professor of mine named John Frame is "the application of scripture to life." From Head to Heart to Hands. Here's a great way of thinking about good works and obedience that will honor Jesus and not fall into the grasp of legalism.

Since our sanctification is every bit as much an act of God’s grace as is our justification, all those who have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, will (as the Catechism says) live according to all of God’s commandments. Since our obedience (like our sin) is covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ (making even the worst our works truly good), our heavenly father delights in our feeble efforts to do good. And knowing this to be the case creates within us the desire to obey all the more. 
My sins are covered by the blood of Christ. Therefore I need not fear sinning anymore. But have you thought about these last two lines before? Have you ever thought that not only are your sins covered (so no need to fear when you fail to follow), but that your good deeds are now pleasing to God (since we're united to Christ)? The obedience of a Christian pleases God because Christ makes "even the worst of our works truly good." We've got all the motivation, and of course power, to live differently in this world than unbelievers. And freedom to not feel ashamed when we daily fall short. You can't beat the gospel message.

Monday, March 19, 2012

American Idol, Outsanding warrants, and advice from Ice Cube

Last week I watched American Idol contestant Jermaine Jones get kicked off the show for having 4 (undisclosed) outstanding arrest warrants. The two Brit producers indicated that they want contestants to be honest in disclosing all the dirty details of the past. 

A few thoughts crawled around my mind and dropped here and there like the termites currently infesting my study at church. 

1.) If you have outstanding warrants, is the best place to hide, or rather run from them, a very popular nationally televised singing competition? This article explains the warrants and the reason they were issued were not of such a grave nature that authorities would actually chase Mr. Jones down. So I guess the moral of the story is that its OK-depending upon the severity of the crime-to not show up for court. Sometimes. I guess he didn't shoot the sheriff, or the deputy (allegedly) like Bob Marley did. Good to know that if you have any outstanding warrants, that shouldn't necessarily make you shy away from American Idol (so long as you tell them) or any other reality show. Land of the free.

2.) If you do watch the video, you feel beyond uncomfortable for this joker. The two Brits try to take the high road by telling him that they are all about giving second chances. They confess that they actually care about Jermaine, and the contestants. I'm guessing a better way of "caring" would have been to address this privately? It's pretty fascinating, for lack of a better word, that even Christians can say (and think) we are doing something for the good of another, yet at the same time NOT be doing it for the good of another. Since this was not a public offense before an American audience, the American audience didn't need to be privy to this. Matthew 18 is a good example of how Jesus instructs us to say the hard things necessary to offending parties, but to do so privately. The scriptures always give parameters, like "speaking truth in love" as well as structures and frameworks (Matthew 18; I Cor 5) which allow the sentiment and activity to be consistent with the gospel.

3.) I'll never cease to be amazed by the "I'm not judging you" comments that non-Christians and unfortunately many Christians cherish hearing. Yet I shouldn't be amazed, because it makes complete sense. The two Brits adamantly say something to the effect of "We're kicking you off the show, because of your undisclosed arrests, but we're not judging you." Uhh....I think Jermaine would have rather been judged BUT kept on the show....But there is a reason why folks so often have to preface everything with "I'm not judging you," and expect one in return: God's righteousness or lack thereof. 

Paul writes of the Jews in Romans 10:3, he says, "They did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own." Inevitably if you are not declared righteous by God, or actually believe you are declared righteous by God, you will seek your own and be slave to the judgments of others. You will seek a righteousness that comes by some sort of works (rather "good" or "bad"). You will. And this is case in point why unbelievers always feel such a need to say, "I'm not judging you...." They expect it in return. They need it.

But if God does declare Jesus' record to count as your record (for the Christian), you don't need to bothered by other's judgments. In fact, when we are bothered by their judgments, it is because we DON"T believe like we say we believe. The problem is not with the other person judging us. The problem is our lack of belief that God doesn't judge us. Who cares if someone judges you? I confess I do, sometimes. Ok, maybe more than I like to admit. But it is stupid and irrational, isn't it?

Ice Cube once sang "Check yourself before you wreck yourself." Provided the "yourself" includes a positional righteousness in Christ, I'd have to agree. If you don't check yourself to see whether you are really resting in Christ's righteousness, you will wreck yourself. And it will be your fault, not the fault of the "judges." Whether on American Idol or the judge next door.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Saved? Totally, or mostly saved?

I just finished reading I Corinthians for my devotional time the other day, but took some time to make it through the rather famous I Corinthians 15 passage which spends a lot of time and focus on the resurrection.

But there is another gem present that most of us often overlook

1 Cor. 15:1-2   "Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,  and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain." 

The gospel is clearly a message of something God has done in history: coming, living, dying, rising, ruling, and one day raising us up bodily. That much is clear from the following verses and the ones following them.

1 Cor 15:3-4 "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures..."

Nevertheless also part of the gospel is its power to save us. Romans 1:16-17 makes that clear, but so do verses 1-2. The gospel is something "in which you stand," but it is also that, "by which you are being saved." One of the reasons I never use the expression so-and-so "got saved," is not because it is un-biblical, but rather because it is incomplete. The bible doesn't speak of Christians simply as those who have "been saved" but those who are NOW "being saved." 

The passage indicates our present need to still "hold fast." We are being saved even now from sin's nagging Power (we're no longer totally enslaved as before), as we already have been saved from sin's Punishment ("in which you stand"). The proper response for the Christian is to keep holding fast to the truth of the gospel (and within the message there are many golden nuggets like new family, new record, new world, new heart, new future, new desires, new hope, new convictions, etc....) and don't stop. While you are free to use the word "saved" to refer to a Christian, or someone becoming a Christian, we are never to think of salvation as something only happening in the past. Your testimony of how you became a Christian is never more relevant than how you are "being saved" now. 

While someone may not be "partly dead" or "mostly dead" as in The Princess Bride, it is biblical to think we are "partly saved" or "mostly saved" (saved from sins punishment, and enslaving power, but not yet its annoying presence in our lives and world) now and will be "fully saved" when we go be with Jesus. Jesus has already done ALL the work for us, so now we hold fast for the duration of the ride.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Practically teaching Calvinism

When I interviewed for my first youth director position, the interviewing pastor said, "Are you comfortable teaching TULIP?" I was surprised-and frankly turned off-that he would ask me that question so soon in the informal interview. But the funny thing is, now twelve years later, I don't think I've actually ever sat down, or rather stood up, and specifically spent a deliberate time teaching Calvinism that way. I've also never preached a sermon designed to prove what I believe to be the truth about predestination.

Instead, I've just more or less assumed that truth, and so have taught passages of scripture Calvinistically. Let me give you two examples from this Sunday: one from Sunday School and one from youth group.

1.) Sunday School. I was trying to affirm the good things about the book Crazy Love before moving on to the critiques. We looked at the parable of the Seeds and the Sower, which explains that the true believer will produce fruit and persevere by faith until the end. He/she will not be overtaken by the weeds, the rocks, the cares or the persecution of this world. I didn't say, "this is the Perseverance part of the P in TULIP." I simply emphasized that true believers will persevere until the end. The passage  refutes the "I prayed a prayer when I was 6 and am good to go now" mentality. I had a professor that would say, "That's not Reform theology, that's just bible!" I prefer to try and teach Reformed truths this way.

2.) Youth Group. In a previous youth group, we learned how gossip is living contrary to the gospel. As a result, I figured we should probably instruct the kids that their responses and expectations to gossiping friends will depend upon whether their friends are Christians or non-Christians. For instance, while some non-Christians MAY respond favorably (Matt 5:14-16), we should not EXPECT them to respond favorably when confronted. Why? We read Ephesians 2:1-5. Because the natural state of man (and teenagers!) is that we're dead in sins and trespasses, and enslaved to the "prince of the air," until we're made alive by Jesus. Why should we EXPECT them to NOT gossip? In addition, their real problem is not that they are gossiping, but that they need to be forgiven and made alive by Christ. What good is it to just tell them to stop? I just gave them a little of the "T" for Total Depravity (I didn't go all the way and say dead men/women can't choose Jesus either, but it was a start).

This is simply practically applying Calvinistic thought to the issue of gossip. I don't know whether or not it's as effective as teaching TULIP to teenagers (but I think it could be). Still, in my own experience, I know a number of people have come to embrace the truths of Calvinism not by walking step-by-step through TULIP but by hearing hearing these truths piecemeal over time and then saying, "Ahhh....yeah, that's what I already believe." That's pretty close to my own experience too

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Youth Ministry that is more than "keeping the kids off the streets."

I used to not be a big fan of W.V.U. coach Bob Huggins. I still have a hard time not calling him "Thuggins." But I do like the lad now, and not just because he coaches for W.V.U.  I can see that he does indeed care about his players. Whether it was that loving moment (though somewhat creepy as well) of him caressing his injured player in the Final Four floor, or the increased graduation rate, I don't know. Perhaps its the more of the latter than the former. 

When coaching at the University of Cincinati, he had a very low graduation rate. In fact I don't think anyone had one lower than Huggins. That's not to hard to believe, since I don't think he graduated A player. Seriously. 

But according to many college coaches, just have kids play basketball for the college is a win-win. The coaches win (literally) and make money, and the college kids play basketball and stay off the streets. Keeping the kids off the streets is better, "non-graduation emphasizing" coaches will reason.

I wonder if that's really the case. Maybe it is. But in the end, you may keep them off the streets, but if you don't equip them while in college, don't many simply return to the proverbial streets?

Some folks take this approach with youth ministry. Keep the kids away from their "bad friends" and entertain them while in jr. high and high school. In other words, if they are entertained, they at least have somewhere to go; they are being kept off the streets.

But the problem is much the same with the college athlete who only knows basketball. He'll simply return back to what he knows because he can't play ball forever. With youth who have been entertained throughout their church and youth ministry experience, where will they go when they head off to college? Not the church. It just can't keep up. It's impossible to do so, not to mention draining when you try. 

If you haven't seen this article, that emphasizes discipleship over entertainment, check it out. It sums up a lot of what many, including myself, really envision.

If the goal is not simply to keep the kids off the streets, but to point them to Jesus and His Church NOW and LATER when they leave, the church has to 1.) Throw resources toward the children/youth and  2.) Expect much of them. I'm not talking about parents role, but focusing on the Church's role now.

1.) Throw Resources. I don't mean money. Money helps in that we can purchase material, go to retreats, etc....But the best resource a church can spend is adults who love Jesus. That's the most important. College kids who walk with Jesus usually have several things in common: one is that they have a few godly adult relationships. In addition to parents, they have a few adult relationships which challenge and encourage them. Kathy Keller in her article about raising kids in the city had this to say...

I have often said that the best thing you can do for your teenage children is not to have them in a great big youth group (of other teens as clueless and confused as themselves), but to have lots of young adult, cool, ardently believing friends.

.....More seriously, the time came in the life of one of the boys when the club culture cast its allure, especially a fabled den of iniquity known as the Limelight. Begging to be allowed to go fell on deaf ears. Sneaking off to try to talk his way in resulted in being caught and grounded for decades. We were bemoaning this seemingly intractable desire to walk on the wild side to a 30-something friend. He was a talent agent who represented very well-known people, and my sons thought he was the coolest person they'd ever met. When the son in question walked up, Steve turned to him and said, "I hear you want to visit the Limelight. If you want to go, I'll take you. I went there many times before I became a Christian, and I never want to go back. But if you want to see it for yourself, I'll take you." We never heard another word about it. Steve had been there, done that, and found Christ better. His words had a power that our lectures never could have.

Whether it's formally teaching Sunday School, youth group, filling in as a sub (we always need them), or informally teaching (talking to them at church, having them into your homes, inviting them on an outing, going out for lunch), these resources get most bang for the buck. Most of us would rather throw money at a ministry than get involved and get our hands dirty. But God seldom uses more money to change the lives of our youth; he uses His people.

2.) Expecting much from them. Just as a good college coach expects his student athletes to do more than just be "off the streets," the church has to expect more than just decent Sunday School/youth attendance. We have to find them "jobs" to do while they are already in jr high and high school. Perhaps no segment of the church is more self-absorbed, but that is partly OUR fault. We perpetuate that when we don't give them opportunities to serve NOW, thinking they are too young to serve, lead, help organize, or even at times teach. Of course they will think the world revolves around them when we don't give them opportunities to bless others. And the more plugged into serving NOW, the more integral church involvement will be THEN when they leave. If serving the church is part of their normal Christian lives, then church becomes not something that they go to (or sleep in) once a week, it is part of who they are. Why would they want to miss corporate worship when it has become more than simply a "spiritual activity?"

In addition to opportunities IN the church, we need to expect them to be involved in the mission OUTSIDE the church. 

These two areas seem to pop up time and time again in studies dealing with the college-and-beyond transition. And since these factors simply involve the church being the church, it is wise for us to emphasize these two things in the youth ministry of a local church.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gross and Graphic

I came across another thoughtful article the other day on the CNN belief blog called "My Take: Stop sugarcoating the bible." Here's an excerpt:

For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.

And let’s not talk so much about Jesus being naked on the cross, and let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the Greek would more accurately be translated.

I'm glad to see someone recognize that the bible isn't "proper." It is so far from proper or an etiquette manual, it's astounding. The bible has language, stories, characters, activities that are certainly not rated PG, but R. Let's just consider the "language" part of it. 

Many people who think any use of any cuss word in any situation is always a sin often point to this passage in Ephesians 5:4, "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving."

But the problem with such thinking is that the bible itself doesn't pass it's own "filthiness" test. Unless that is, filthiness means something different than gross or graphic. God inspires writers to write in such language that is, well, something. It's raw. It's earthy. It's real. It's gross and graphic. It's filthy in some sense, particularly when it describes sin in sexual terms (Ezekiel 23:20) or menstrual rags. (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3). 

Ultimately what happens when we ignore the graphic language of the bible, we just get a safe, proper, black and white, Christianity where everything has an easy answer. We forget the depth of sin, the ferocity of the spiritual battle, the nastiness (crap, or S%$*) of self-righteous behavior. 

Don't be too quick to condemn someone's language that actually closely aligns with the bible. Someone once said in bible study, "We think we are the s%*^, but we're really not; we are really more sinful than we think." I commended this guy's spiritual breakthrough. I think he finally understood the gospel and simply reiterated an expression more "Pauline" than the words "rubbish" or trash" our modern translations have substituted in Phil 3:8.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

On heresy and humility: you don't have to be a thelogical jerk

Here is a post from Justin Holcomb on dealing with heresy and what it is not. The whole thing is well worth the read, but here are some snippets.

If a believer authentically holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.

For the grammatically anal, it should "if a believer holds....we should not cal HIM (not them) a heretic." But that's beside the point. I love his winsome and humble attitude, which I think is what Paul is driving at in Phil 4:8 in "whatever is lovely." This attitude is an absolute necessity, though rare, in theological dialog. This guy went to Reformed Theological Seminary (where I went) and is doing a fine job at being "winsomely reformed," as they taught us down in those parts. You don't have to be a jerk to question, challenge, discern, or dialog with those of differing theologies-even bad ones.

Such an attitude of humble, charitable engagement stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the blogosphere today. Rather than being fundamentalists who turn disagreement into division, we should contend for the truth with humility and grace. That’s how Jesus treated us.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You just never know someone

Jim Rome radio interviewed Charles Barkley this week and the most interesting part of the segment centered around this question: "Were you surprised to hear that your friend Tiger Woods was thinking about becoming a Navy Seal?" Tiger's old coach explained that this was actually the case, that he considered leaving golf for the seals.  Barkley's pithy retort landed pretty close to real wisdom: "You just never know someone Jim." 

Barkley had been friends with Woods for about 15 years or so and had no clue. You just never no someone Jim. I mean, did you think OJ Simpson would go out and kill people?
I think OJ probably gave those near him a few clues...but that's coming from someone who really didn't know him.

Jim Rome responded in complete agreement, particularly when it comes to athletes. We have no idea who they really are. 

Again Barkley commented, "You just can't get to the know someone from sound bytes and interviews."

I wonder how true the "you just don't know someone" principle is in our churches today. Could someone consider leaving his/her profession and become a Navy Seal, yet none of his/her friends know that it was a serious option? 

Yep.  Much of church interaction is a bit more than "sound bytes" or "interviews," but not that much more.
Gathering together for small group ministry of some kind in homes provides a great place to "consider" such options. In order to know and be known, you have to put yourself in places where it is natural and conducive to know and be known. However, you also have to take the step of faith and bring others into your "considerations."

While it's true we can't know athletes, I do have hope that small groups can help us negate the statement: you just never know someone.

But that will only be the case if we choose to offer our brothers and sisters in the faith more than just sound bytes or interviews. We need to offer our homes and respond to the offer of homes. However, when inside the homes, we need to offer ourselves. If Jesus knows me and my warts and still loves me, I can be hopeful that His people will know me and love me. But even if they don't-and they never will know or love me 100% satisfactorily-we can still be free to know and be known.